In 2016, after seven years of regulatory battles, the Block Island Wind Farm went online and the first watts produced from a turbine built on America’s continental shelf traveled to an energy grid. At the time, the Obama administration had secured $200 million for offshore wind projects and research as part of a more climate-conscious energy policy, and the Department of the Interior had issued 11 commercial leases for offshore wind farms.
None of them was ever built. The plan that came the closest to breaking ground — an 800-megawatt set of turbines near Martha’s Vineyard — wavered through regulatory efforts and finally died in December. Meanwhile, nations like the United Kingdom, China and Germany have constructed more and larger offshore farms.
During the administration of President Donald Trump, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved five additional leasing sites for offshore wind farms. Most of Trump’s energy and environmental actions lifted restrictions on fossil fuels, a shift in balance that diminished incentives for investment in wind energy. Trump also sowed doubt about climate change, a strong impetus for development of renewable energy sources, and singled out windmills as “ugly,” “noisy” and “dangerous.”
Now, the offshore wind industry and the maritime interests that serve it see hope in the election of Joe Biden as president. His campaign promises included $2 trillion in clean energy and sustainability measures, the creation of a carbon-free electricity infrastructure by 2035, an “irreversible path” to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and 10 million jobs in renewable energy sectors.
“I think when he puts his hand on the Bible (at his inauguration), there will be absolute confidence that offshore wind will be part of the country’s energy policy,” Liz Burdock, CEO of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, said in mid-December. “There is no way you can get to carbon-neutral without offshore wind.”
Biden has not put forth a specific plan for offshore wind development, but his climate pledge on the campaign trail included developing renewables on federal lands and waters “with the goal of doubling offshore wind by 2030.” While that is not a lofty goal considering the nation currently has only one offshore farm, industry groups have cheered his interest in the energy source.
“The Biden team has laid out a comprehensive approach to climate-change policy that recognizes renewable energy’s ability to grow America’s economy and create a cleaner environment and a more prosperous and equitable future,” said Laura Morton, senior director of offshore policy and regulatory affairs for the American Wind Energy Association.
Offshore wind has the potential to be a bounty for the U.S. maritime industry. The needs are plentiful, including the installation of turbines and their groundwork, the maintenance of that infrastructure, and the delivery of supplies and personnel to sites. A research paper from the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment projected that an infrastructure of 1,700 offshore wind towers — which the authors forecast as a feasible goal for 2030 — would generate $70 billion a year for companies on the supply chain.
Under the Jones Act, the vessels required to meet these needs must be built in the United States, must be U.S.-flagged, and must be crewed by American mariners. U.S. shipyards have already built two vessels designed to service offshore wind farms — WindServe Odyssey from Senesco Marine and Atlantic Pioneer from Blount Boats — and more are on the way.
It is uncertain how much of Trump’s personal opinion of wind power trickled down to his administration’s policies, but he has expressed an animosity toward wind turbines that dates back to his career as a real estate developer. Trump waged a lengthy battle to prevent the Scottish government from allowing offshore turbines near a coastal golf course and hotel his company was building, and in 2012 he told the country’s Parliament that “Scotland will go broke” due to their impact on tourism. In campaign speeches, Trump falsely claimed that the noise from windmills can cause cancer.
Sean Kline, director of maritime affairs for the Chamber of Shipping of America, said in his lobbying of the Trump administration that he saw a drive to replace any Obama-era policy simply because it was the policy of that administration. This included the National Ocean Policy implemented by executive order in 2010. The NOP was the result of years of lobbying by industry and environmental groups for a unified approach to protect American lakes, rivers and coastal waters, rather than a hodgepodge of industry-by-industry regulations.
“They called it ‘Obamacare on the seas’ even though it was started by the Bush administration,” Kline said.
The NOP endorsed data keeping and sharing of waterway usage, and it authorized managers from entities like the U.S. Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to meet with industry stakeholders. These actions are crucial when establishing shipping routes and ocean space for a new industry like offshore wind.
“We told them, ‘Let’s not get rid of everything,’” Kline said. “I think they just wanted to pass their own version.”
And they did. In 2018, Trump repealed Obama’s executive order and replaced it with his own, emphasizing the importance of waterways for their resources. But the key elements remained, Kline said.
Replacing a president with acrimony toward wind power with one more receptive to renewable energy may open the gates for lucrative offshore wind development. Longtime industry watchers say there are still many challenges ahead, however, including the logistics of getting the power to the shoreside grid.
“As you build out offshore wind more and more, there are discussions on what the cabling would look like,” said Amy Trice, director of ocean planning for the Ocean Conservancy.
There is also the issue of dock space. Areas at major ports have been allotted to particular companies and industries for decades, part of complicated resource-sharing agreements organized by industry and government. A variety of federal agencies would have to play a role in ensuring that space is given to a budding industry, and they would need flexibility from maritime stakeholders like cruise lines, cargo shippers and fishermen.
“Ports have limited space on the East Coast,” Trice said. “To add these additional components, someone has to think of the space for that.”
Burdock said the Biden administration can support state and local officials who are in favor of wind farm development by quickening and simplifying the oversight process. Often the leasing and construction of an offshore farm is a tug of war between states, local stakeholders, the developers and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
“It’s not going to be easy to get a national energy policy,” Burdock said, noting that the federal approach is often scattershot with few singular goals. “(But the administration) can support all these governors. All these projects are in federal waters and so much can be resolved with some help at the federal level.” •